NMSU chemical and materials engineering takes course outside of the classroom

DATE: 01/20/2019
WRITER: Vladimir Avina, 575-646-7234, vlad23@nmsu.edu
CONTACT: David Rockstraw, 575-646-7705, drockstr@nmsu.edu

Chemical engineering classes offered by the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University are no longer limited to the seats in a classroom. David Rockstraw, department head and Robert Davis Distinguished Professor for the Chemical and Materials Engineering Department, has brought the classroom to the student. 

“The university is going in this direction of online education, and I saw this as an online program,” Rockstraw said. “It’s online in that students can take the class remotely just like an online class.” The only difference with traditional online classes is that students must take these classes during the NMSU academic semester. The advantage is that students are actually in the classroom, and can interact with the instructor and remote classmates using the technology.

A generous gift from Bob (BSCHE ’80) and Gwen Watkins made renovation of the classroom possible, creating the Watkins Connected Learning Classroom. The Watkins’ donation established the Bob and Gwen Watkins Chemical and Materials Engineering Scholarship as well. The gift was made to appreciate and acknowledge “the positive impact than an NMSU chemical engineering education made in their lives.”

The 95-seat high-tech distance-education classroom, housed in Jett Hall, features microphones and a camera that follows the professor during a lecture. Students taking CHME 101 this coming fall may ask questions via the microphone on their computer or on a chat box. Enrolled students can be sitting in the classroom, in their residence hall room, or anywhere else and participate in the class as it is in session. Or, they can opt to view the class session asynchronously later in the evening or any other time they find it convenient.

The pilot class is CHME 101, which is set to start in the fall 2019 semester and will be available to any student who registers for the course. Students at San Juan College in Farmington will find CHME 101 in their school’s catalog. Soon, if Rockstraw gets his way, NMSU’s chemical engineering classes will be in community college and satellite campus catalogs throughout New Mexico. 

“It was a very minimal investment, because the university has the site license for the Canvas software,” Rockstraw explained. All students registered for NMSU classes automatically have access to the Canvas platform, a cloud-based learning management system. “Students do not need to download any software onto their computers, they simply open a browser, log in to Canvas, click on their course and there will be an Adobe Connect option, they click on that and it opens the player.”

Rockstraw said the idea came from a recurring advising problem he had with transferring students. 

“Freshman classes and sophomore classes are prerequisites for junior year and junior classes are prerequisites for senior classes,” Rockstraw said. “Students would come from community colleges around the state with two years under their belt and say ‘I’m ready to start my junior year Dr. Rockstraw.’ As soon as they learn otherwise, they change their major to another engineering field that does not have the rigid prerequisite sequences that we have in chemical.

“So my thought was, if I can get our courses to students in other locations and get them taking the prerequisites while they’re still freshmen and sophomores, when they arrive at NMSU, they will truly be juniors,” Rockstraw said. 

Rockstraw plans to add more courses with time and will have all chemical engineering faculty members trained to use the system. With more courses available, the new teaching initiative will also help students who participate in cooperative education stay on track. Typically, students who take co-op classes take a job for six months. If they can take courses remotely while on the job, they can stay in sequence with their coursework, not having to delay their progress toward graduation. 

Although the students cannot take the lab with their class, Rockstraw plans to offer an intensive summer laboratory course sequence. 

The future also calls for web-based graduate courses. 

Students may be interested in a Master of Engineering in Chemical Process Industries, a new degree recently approved for the college. It will be offered in the fall and is hoped to be of particular interest to working engineers. With the MECPI degree, students complete an engineering project rather than a master of science thesis.

“Difference between the two degrees is the master of science in chemical engineering requires six credit hours of fundamental research in our laboratories under the direct direction of one of our faculty,” Rockstraw explained. “For the master of engineering, a student would work on a project, approved by one of our faculty, at their place of employment and overseen by the site’s engineering supervisor.”

Both options require the same 32 credit hours, six of which are either research- or project-based. 

“The other difference is, master of engineering coursework includes business and economics courses – things that are critical to practicing engineers,” Rockstraw said.

“This gift allows NMSU Chemical and Materials Engineering to provide the opportunity to pursue a chemical engineering education at all levels across New Mexico and to anywhere one has a laptop and an internet connection. As Steve Jobs once said, sorta, ‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the way education is administered in New Mexico are the ones who do.’ I am thankful to the Watkins for their generosity and encouragement.”